Theater Review: 'Fabulation' at Center Stage

Lizan Mitchell, left, and Natalie Venetia Belcon face off in Center Stage's revival of Lynn Nottage's 2004 comedy.
Lizan Mitchell, left, and Natalie Venetia Belcon face off in Center Stage's revival of Lynn Nottage's 2004 comedy. (By Richard Anderson -- Center Stage)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Fate sweeps a hotshot publicist back to the slums she came from in Lynn Nottage's snappy "Fabulation or, the Re-education of Undine." Think she might learn a little something from that?

The thrust of Nottage's 2004 comedy isn't subtle, but her zingers can be pretty tart as she twists expectations and flips her characters inside out. Undine the publicist ends up as Sharona in rehab, Sharona being the pretentious social climber's given name, and rehab being a cosmic joke on this squeaky clean egotist.

The material is promising, which is the least you expect from a playwright with Nottage's résumé. "Fabulation" won an Obie, her "Ruined" is now playing in New York, and she's a recent winner of a MacArthur fellowship -- the "genius" grant.

Yet something dulls the shine a bit at Baltimore's Center Stage, where "Fabulation" has been on display this month in a busy, often lively production that never fully reaches its fizzy potential. Nottage gives the story plenty of sugar, but directors these days excel at ferreting out the medicine, and Jackson Gay's staging tones down "Fabulation's" satirical antics to make sure you get the message.

Even so, the pell-mell story has its charms. When first seen, Undine (Natalie Venetia Belcon) is a public relations terror, barking invective into the phone and bullying her secretarial minion, all the while preening in a stylish dress and killer pumps by costume designer Jessica Ford. Undine's triumphs in the celebrity mill come to a screeching halt when her Latin charmer of a husband (played with cool, splendidly absurd machismo by Robert Montano) embezzles her to the hilt.

Undine learns this as the chic office she has painstakingly created is dismantled around her. Oh, and -- surprise! -- at 37, she's pregnant. (The drug bust comes later.)

Nottage is out to mine the social friction that comes when this snobby African American success is dragged back to the downscale roots she's tried to forget, and at times it works delightfully. Undine -- whose name comes in part from an Edith Wharton novel -- is a force to be reckoned with at the benefits office, in jail, and back among her family of security guards she hasn't seen for years. Belcon is tough as nails in the role, offering up a portrait of a lady no one wants to mess with for long.

Emotionally, though, Gay and Belcon seem to see Undine as completely bottled up, which makes it hard for Belcon to deliver a performance that matches the journey's dynamism. Undine's dry asides to the audience are arch and witty, but even these spotlighted thoughts are rarely revelatory; all the character's vulnerability is channeled into one big moment near the end.

It flattens the story's arc, even with the cast of seven (plus Belcon) whirling through multiple roles as Undine tumbles from the penthouse to the street. Notable among the flavorful ensemble are Lizan Mitchell, driving the show to its comic peak as a grandmother with a surprising bad habit, and Frank Harts as Undine's brother Flow, who's perpetually at work on a sociologically penetrating epic poem on the Brer Rabbit theme.

"There is no greater crime than abandoning your history," Flow declares at one point. Right: The moral of Nottage's story is never in doubt. The trick is hanging on to what makes it fab fun.

Fabulation or, the Re-education of Undine, by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Jackson Gay. Scenic design, Adrian W. Jones; lights, Paul Whitaker; composer/sound design, Greg Wilder. With Jerome Preston Bates, Crystal Anne Dickinson, Richard Gallagher, Maria-Christina Oliveras. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through March 8 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. Call 410-332-0033 or visit

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